Reputations: Pierre Bernard
‘I don’t believe in revolutionary design, but I do believe that reactionary designs exist. It’s always easier to perpetuate the same forms and contents rather than to search out new ones.’
Why Grapus had to disband. Eye talks to founder Pierre Bernard
Pierre Bernard was born in 1942. At the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, he met Gérard Paris-Clavel and François Miehe, and in 1970 the trio founded Grapus. Initially, they worked for the Communist Party, though other sympathetic clients soon followed. In 1974, the founders were joined by Jean-Paul Bachollet, and in 1975 by Alexander Jordan; Miehe left the group in 1978. Grapus functioned as a collective and all projects were collectively signed. On 1 January 1991 Grapus disbanded. Bernard has now formed a new design team with Dirk Behage and Fokke Draaijer under the name Atelier de Création Graphique-Grapus. He continues to operate from the same office in the Rue de la Révolution, Montreuil.
Rick Poynor: After your initial studies in Paris you went to Warsaw to study with Henryk Tomaszewski. What was it about Polish poster design that made you want to go?
Pierre Bernard: In France I studied graphic art with Jean Widmer for a year. The only classic works in France at the time were being done by Savignao and André Francois. They were the only ones who were working as painters and in the graphic arts at the same time. On the other hand, the Polish posters that had been exhibited had been produced by both painters and graphic artists and that was very attractive. The other important thing about these posters was that the subjects were new, at least for the French. They were theatrical posters, cinema posters dealing with poetry, sports. These subjects were not being addressed in France because, for the most part, poster-makers were working in advertising, more often than not for products.
RP: You formed Grapus in 1970, very much in the wake of the political events of 1968. What was your aim?
PB: Between my visit to Poland and the founding of Grapus, six years had gone by, including the events of 1968, which were far more formative in the foundation of Grapus than my visit to Poland. After my return, I worked in advertising for a bit, then I worked for a newspaper. After a year I was totally fed up so I decided to continue my studies and to make an animated film. At that point, in 1968, I met François Miehe and Gérard Paris-Clavel. I was at Arts Déco as a student when the student movement started – we made posters with students every day for a whole month.
Not long afterwards, the Institute for the Environment was set up in Paris, inspired by André Malraux, The idea was to create a school that could train researchers and teachers who would deal with the topic of the man-made environment. So we went there - François, Gérard and me - to carry out a research project about political propaganda. We discovered semiology and it was very important to us. It allowed us to deconstruct images, so we could say to the political commissioning bodies: “We are going to make images for you which will have real meaning. We are going to make true political images.” This was something that was absolutely essential to Grapus. In 1970, after a year at the Institute, we decided to found Grapus in order to put our ideas into practice. The idea was to form a production group, an artistic collective, to create high-quality images for the political struggle of the French Communist Party. It was both a political and a graphic commitment.
RP: You were all members of the party, attending its meetings?
PB: It worked on two different levels. We became members of the Communist Party, and we took part as ordinary party members. We all belonged to a cell in the local area where we lived, but at the same time Grapus itself operated on an institutional level. In other words, Grapus had its own identity. Our adherence to the party was quite distinct from the visual images we created for the party.
RP: What about other clients?
PB: In France in the 1970s there were many intellectuals and artists who were committed to the Communist Party, working side-by-side. We very quickly made contact with people who were not communists, but worked in cultural life, in the theatre, in public life, in architecture. So we started to do a lot of work in these social and cultural fields.
RP: Yet always in your designs you were questioning the clients. Isn’t that a lot to expect a client to cope with?
PB: That’s always been our problem and it’s still our problem. Clients didn’t tend to stay with Grapus very long. That’s one of the reasons why Grapus has financial problems. I think it’s because our attitude towards them excites them, but at the same time it makes them take risks. People don’t like to take one risk after another – and if they do take a risk twice, they don’t do it a third time. It’s too adventurous, too difficult.
Even in the successful campaigns, our clients often had a feeling that they had been abused by us. They felt that we rather forced their hands, that we’d expressed ourselves in their place. At some point they agree to the means of expression we use – they claim it as their own since we do the work in their name. Nevertheless they felt a bit frustrated. Perhaps that’s because we didn’t behave like suppliers, slavishly following their instructions. Rather, we were like equal partners, working towards a common goal, which they had decided to share with us by offering us the job. They may have felt slightly dispossessed. We are very aware of it with the passage of time, when we’ve spoken to them again later, or when other people have spoken to them.
RP: After twenty years together, the founders of Grapus decided to split up and form three new Grapus groups. Why?
PB: In my opinion the main reason why Grapus split up was linked to a desire to continue the form of action which Grapus represented. It may sound a bit contradictory or paradoxical, but that’s how it was. In order to continue the Grapus mode of production, I personally needed to separate from the founding members of Grapus – to begin a new form of adventure with new people. Our mode of production is one of conflict. We are in conflict with the clients, but there is also conflict between us. Everyone can talk about and work on everyone else’s project. That principle of creative conflict has been very difficult to maintain in the 1980s. When the old-timers start arguing between themselves, the younger people just leave. It’s like a conflict between the bosses rather than a conflict between creative peers. For the younger members of Grapus to play their part completely, we need complete equality.
RP: That being the case, what role do you play in a project such as the recent National Park identity? Are you the person who talks to the client and then comes back and briefs the others?
PB: No, that’s not what happens, and that’s why we’re losing money. On the National Parks project, we often have meetings here. There are three people from the National Parks and five of us. Now in a normal design group, there are never five people sitting listening to the client; there are two and sometimes there is only one. But we find that we derive something from the different understandings and sensitivities. It’s very rewarding from the point of view of understanding and also from the commitment of the designers to the solution they find. But it’s also very costly because it takes up a lot of people’s time, even if they are not the main creative forces on a project.
One of the assumptions which is very important is our choice of a single name for the Grapus collective. Now this idea of a collective artist or creator implies that each of the participants has a complete sense of ownership for all the works which leave the studio, even if he hasn’t on them. In this way a real sense of community is created and everyone has to deal with the way that everyone else goes about doing things. There’s a genuine positive friction between them.
RP: Since you started working on large institutional projects in the 1980s have you been able to comment on your clients in the same way that you did in the 1970s when you worked for trade unions and small theatrical companies? Or have you been forced to become more neutral and less involved in your approach?
PB: I believe that we are involved fairly deeply. We take on all sorts of clients. There are some small- or medium-sized clients for whom we produce very serious work, but with whom we are not totally involved. It would be dishonest to say that we’re always one hundred percent involved with our clients. We like all our clients, but in some cases we have fairly light-hearted relationships with them.
On the other hand, with the large institutions we are always totally involved. With regard to the Louvre, we were interested in dealing with the museum in all its historical and cultural gravitas. The Louvre is at the very heart of French pictorial culture and it was very important for us to deal that in all its implications. We were working there with people who had a commitment to the beauty of the museum – a beauty which is open to change and development.
RP: Was it a battle to get the Louvre to accept an identity that was this adventurous and challenging?
PB: It was not at all easy. In fact, there was a competition and we won with a different logotype which didn’t have clouds. The clouds represent not only the idea of time passing, but also of light, the concept so forcefully captured in the new pyramid entrance to the Louvre Palace. The current director of the Louvre, Michel Laclotte, is a remarkable man and we worked with him. At the outset, six out of the seven departments in the Louvre refused to have clouds on their letterhead – they felt that they looked like grease stains!
What is interesting is that now, two years after we created the identity, the stationery has been reprinted and these departments have decided that they want to be like everyone else – with the clouds. So it’s been accepted without the need for any conflict.
RP: What was the public reaction?
PB: It’s impossible to tell – the problem, in France, is that there was no reaction at all. Currently, there is not a single journal that is interested in this sort of work. In France, there are people who take an interest in graphic design, but it’s not at all widespread. In the newspapers there are no writers who take an interest. It’s a subject which doesn’t interest anyone who isn’t already working in the field.
RP: You have said before that “in France we know nothing of graphic design”. Yet clearly there are many graphic designers at work here.
PB: I believe, quite simply, that there has not been a typographic tradition in France for quite some time. And that’s very important because there is a long typographic tradition in Germany, in Switzerland of course, in the Low Countries, and in England. This is the reason why there has been no development, no link between the image and typography – the two functional elements which make up a corporate identity. The developments have been essentially developments of the image.
Savignac, for example, created typographic designs like a painter. A recent assessment of French graphics at the Centre George Pompidou, showed that the current generation of French graphic designers are brimming with graphic energy, but are rather undeveloped as far as typography is concerned. There was also an advertising model that involved an awareness of communication techniques, but not really graphic design.
RP: Viewed from outside France, Grapus appear to have done much to keep the tradition of integrated typography and image-making alive. How conscious are you of the example you have set for younger French designers?
PB: For us the typographic model in the 1970s was something we had to find in the United States. In Poland we discovered calligraphy, but it was the Push Pin Studio which introduced the notion of the relationship between the image and typography. The influence of Grapus in France is very closely linked to our affinities with calligraphy – with a sort of opposition to typography and the typographic order. That’s what the majority of young graphic designers have retained from Grapus – a stylistic form which is anti-typography. Mind you, the way we work today is anything but anti-typographic – quite the reverse.
In my opinion, what makes good design interesting is the strongest possible confrontation between form and content. In other words, form and content should be put it a new relationship to each other. When other designers copy you, they use the same forms without the link between form and content – without the element of necessity. Then it’s just a question of fashion.
RP: You obviously felt when you began that graphic design could affect social change. Do you still feel that as urgently as you did in the 1970s?
PB: I don’t believe it as naively as I did twenty years ago, but I still believe it. Graphic design is an expression of society and it changes society, like all design. Design expresses what is, but at the same time designs are created and organised by man, thus they can have a sort of spirit of adventure. There’s always a double aspect.
I don’t believe in revolutionary design, but I do believe that reactionary designs exist. It’s always easier to perpetuate the same forms and contents rather than to search out new ones. Of course, design can’t change everything, but nonetheless it’s the search which leads to change.
RP: Do you feel that you devised a solution that expressed some of these ideas and values in the National Parks project?
PB: In the parks we tried to create a complex emotional image in which one could lose oneself – like the way one can lose oneself in pictures of our own planet. We the put this emotional vision into context which is totally functional, to allow as many people as possible to have the great emotional pleasure of visiting the parks.
In the parks themselves, our whole graphic strategy consists of not using any symbolic features. There are symbols outside, on the stationary, on flags, in books. But inside, we decided to a system which was as functional as possible. Now the advertising approach would have been to put the image of the Parks everywhere to show that the parks were on their grounds, that they existed as an institution. But we made the park officials understand that, although it was important that their image should make a strong impact outside, when one was actually inside the parks, one was within the image itself, and that any systematic repetition of the image would be repulsive.
RP: What other goals have you set now you’ve re-formed as the “Atelier de Creation Graphique-Grapus”?
PB: Our strategy as a studio is to do very large-scale work and also very small-scale work, and to have the greatest diversity of clients. We always choose clients who interest us. We would like to be a studio that does as much research as possible. Obviously, if one wants to make a lot of money, one has to do repetitive work. Now admittedly we do repetitive work in certain areas, but we do as little as possible. We try to work in as many different fields as possible in order to innovate as much as we can.
First published in Eye no. 3 vol. 1, 1991
Rick Poynor, writer, Eye founder, London
NOTE: Pierre Bernard died on 23 November 2015
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